- Mike Croissant
A B-17 Navigator on the Fifteenth Air Force's One and Only Raid on Berlin
First Lieutenant Doug Lenkoski was really named Leo, but he didn’t know it until he got his acceptance letter to Harvard in the spring of 1942. The letter was addressed to Leo Lenkoski, and Doug didn’t know who that was. Only then did he learn that his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, had wanted to name him Douglas, but there weren’t any saints with that name, so, at his baptism, the priest had named him Leo. Leo accepted his offer of admission at Harvard, but his baptismal name never stuck.
The aviation bug bit the future navigator at an early age. When Lenkoski was in the second grade, Jimmy Doolittle took off from a local airfield in Springfield, Massachusetts, and flew right over Doug’s school. A few years later, Lenkoski began taking flying lessons using wages earned working at a local drug store. Under the guise of attending Mass, he sneaked out of the house to attend pilot lessons in a plane rented from Smith College in Northampton.
At age seventeen, Lenkoski was halfway through his freshman year at Harvard when he could suppress his desire to be a pilot no more. He volunteered for the AAF and was told he would be assigned to the Aviation Cadet Program when he turned eighteen. Lenkoski finished the academic year at Harvard and reported to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis for basic training. It was the summer of 1943.
Lenkoski’s aviation career began later at one of the AAF’s classification centers, where the service decided to make its recruits into pilots, bombardiers, or navigators. “I want to be a pilot,” Lenkoski told his classification officer eagerly.
“How about navigator?” the officer replied.
“But sir, I’ve always wanted to be a pilot,” Lenkoski retorted.
“How about navigator?” the officer again offered, making it clear there was no real choice to be had.
“Okay, I want to be a navigator,” Lenkoski said, accepting his fate.
Another birthday came and went, as did countless hours in the air and in classrooms. Finally, at age nineteen, Lenkoski sat at the navigation table of a brand-new B-17 as his crew crossed the Atlantic. Celestial navigation had become one of Lenkoski’s fortés in training, and it was now coming in handy, because they were headed from Gander, Newfoundland, to the Azores, at night. “There was no radio. Only me, the stars, and my sextant,” he recalled. Lenkoski got the men to Gander safely, giving his self-confidence a big boost, and the longing in his heart to be a pilot finally subsided. It was September 1944 when the crew reached Italy and the 483rd Bomb Group.
Lenkoski was a good navigator, and the AAF sent him to Bari, the headquarters of the Fifteenth Air Force, to train to be lead navigator for his squadron, the 840th. On a mission to bomb an oil refinery in Vienna, Lenkoski guided the group around for a second pass when the target was clouded over. A break in the clouds appeared, and the 483rd was able to hit the target. For his actions, Lenkoski was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Then came Berlin.
Lenkoski remembered the briefing on the morning of 24 March 1945 vividly. The briefer pulled back the curtain to reveal the target, only the target was not on the map. The red string that normally traced the group’s route to the target went off the map. Lenkoski and the other officers thought it a joke, and there was nervous laughter. “Don’t laugh, this is for real,” one of the briefers said. They were going to the "Big B" to attack the Daimler-Benz tank works.
“I was not the greatest with aircraft recognition,” Lenkoski recalled. “I thought the Me 262s were P-51s with wing tanks.” When it was clear he was wrong, Lenkoski manned a .50-caliber machine gun in the nose and went to work. The 262s were just too fast, and the navigator doubted he hit anything.
As fearsome as the German jets were, flak was the real killer, as Lenkoski almost learned, literally. On one mission, a two-inch piece of shrapnel came up through the plane and struck him squarely in the chest, sending him tumbling to the deck. “I’m hit!” Lenkoski yelled dramatically. “I’m hit!”
Orville Pruetzel, the phlegmatic bombardier that Lenkoski often paired with, was a deeply religious man who on missions would set down his Bible only long enough to guide the ship on its bomb run. After calling “bombs away,” he would go right back to Scripture. Lenkoski remembered sitting on his rear end, thinking he was gravely wounded, as Pruetzel came over, calmly examined the fallen navigator, and said, “Get up and get back to work.”
Though the shrapnel had clobbered Lenkoski’s flak jacket with enough force to knock him down, it had bounced off and embedded itself in his chest chute, which was partially connected to Lenkoski’s parachute harness under his flak suit. All that was wounded was the navigator’s pride. Lenkoski kept the piece of shrapnel as a prized possession.
Doug Lenkoski graduated from Harvard in 1948 and went to medical school at Yale and Case Western Reserve. He researched, taught, and published in the field of psychiatry for half a century. Lenkoski was a Professor Emeritus at Case Western Reserve, which named a chair in his honor in 2003, and lived in Cleveland with Jeannette, his wife of more than 65 years, with whom he had four children. Doug Lenkoski passed away in 2017 at age 91.
Doug Lenkoski interviews with Mike Croissant, 13 May 2013 and 1 September 2014. Photo: Doug Lenkoski in 2014.
Photo credit: Mike Croissant